osprey_archer: (shoes)
[personal profile] osprey_archer
I discovered, FAR TOO LATE, that it is actually possible to stay in the old Oneida Community building: they have converted part of it into a hotel (and an even larger part of it into apartments). IF ONLY! But they seem to get booked up far in advance, so probably even if I had popped over to their website when the idea of a road trip first occurred to me in June, I still couldn't have stayed there.

Still. MAYBE SOMEDAY. Upstate New York is so beautiful - I've never been here before, but I love the mountains - and so full of history: I just happened to stumble upon L. Frank Baum's hometown today. They have an Oz museum, which I did not visit, but if I come back...

Mostly I spent the day visiting the Oneida Community Mansion House, where the three hundred odd members of the community lived from the 1860s to 1880, when the community broke up. (They were in the area since 1848, but it took them some time to gather the resources to build that stately brick house.) I took the guided tour, which was really wonderful - we had a thoughtful and well-informed docent, a former English teacher, who not only knew everything about the house but had read most of the books in the gift shop and helped me decide which one to buy. (I ended up with Pierrepont B. Noyes' memoir of his childhood at Oneida, which is delightful so far.)

The Oneida Community was a Christian perfectionist cult - perfectionist in the sense of "We can achieve sinless grace on earth!", not its modern meaning. They practiced:

1. Bible communism. Everyone in the community holds all goods in common; the community takes care of everyone and everyone does work for the community, and all kinds of work are held to be holy.

2. Complex marriage. All the men and women in the community are heterosexually married to each other. People at the time often figured that there was a constant orgy going on in the mansion, but in fact sexual contact had to be carefully negotiated, usually through an intermediary, and anyone had the right to say no. (Charles Guiteau, who later assassinated President Garfield, lived in the Oneida Community for five years and could not get laid.) You'd think women would be getting pregnant all the time, except the community also practiced

3. Male continence. Men were not to ejaculate during sex. This apparently worked really well - there were only forty pregnancies in the group's first twenty years of existence - possibly because incorrect ejaculation would come up during Mutual Criticism, which would be totally mortifying and also limit one's future sex partners.

4. Which brings us neatly to Mutual Criticism, during which people were allowed - nay, encouraged! - to tell you all your faults so you could try to correct them and thus approach nearer to spiritual perfection. This sounds excruciating, but Pierrepont Noyes, in his memoir, comments that "because members had the opportunity to criticize each other openly, Community life was singularly free from backbiting and scandalmongering," so perhaps it's a case of ripping off the bandaid all in one go rather than taking it up millimeter by excruciating millimeter.

And also everyone except John Humphrey Noyes, the founder, underwent Mutual Criticism, so any impulse toward harshness much have been tempered by the knowledge that the criticizer might soon by the criticized.

I have no idea if the Community owned this many portraits of Noyes when it was active, but now they are everywhere. It reminded me a bit of the omnipresent Lenins in the Soviet Union, although this comparison is unfair to Noyes: he seems to have been about as benevolent a patriarch as it is possible for any human being to be, spoken of with love and respect even after the community fell apart.

Although I do think the comparison does serve to show the limits of the Oneida community, as enticing as certain aspects of the experiment seem. (I for one like the idea of living in a mansion full of like-minded people with a well-stocked reading room and an endless round of entertainments: the Oneidans, no ascetics, played croquet, put on plays, read novels aloud to each other, and fielded a full orchestra.) Communes seem to need a charismatic leader to succeed - hence the mayfly nature of most nineteenth-century commune experiments - and there's no guarantee you'll get a benevolent Noyes rather than someone voraciously power-mad.

Date: 2017-07-16 08:44 am (UTC)
lost_spook: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lost_spook
Communes seem to need a charismatic leader to succeed - hence the mayfly nature of most nineteenth-century commune experiments - and there's no guarantee you'll get a benevolent Noyes rather than someone voraciously power-mad.

A fundamental design flaw of human groups everyone, really. I hadn't heard of the Oneida Community and it does sound very interesting.

Date: 2017-07-16 04:33 pm (UTC)
landofnowhere: (Default)
From: [personal profile] landofnowhere
That sounds fascinating!

If your travels are taking you in that direction, I recommend the former Shaker settlement in Watervliet near Albany; I haven't been there since I was a kid, but it's a nice place and would make an interesting contrast with Oneida.

Date: 2017-07-16 08:25 pm (UTC)
landofnowhere: (Default)
From: [personal profile] landofnowhere
Have fun in Ithaca!

Date: 2017-07-16 05:28 pm (UTC)
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
I don't know about Mutual Criticism. We have Pierrepont Noyes's word that it worked well, but I Have My Doubts. I remember visiting an intentional community in western Massachusetts when we first moved here, and the person who took us around talked about how they governed by consensus--just talked until everyone agreed, and everyone could participate and.... uh huh. I don't think so. My experience of committees tells me that in any group of people, there's someone who will tell rambling stories, someone who always has a grievance to air, someone who likes to cut others off... and usually also others with constructive ideas, patience, ability to get to the heart of things, etc. But even if there isn't an actual hierarchy, unspoken hierarchies establish themselves. When the rambling speaker gets to talking, people exchange glances, and the cutter-offer utilizes their skills. A person who's holding out with an unpopular position gets pressured subtly or unsubtly to change it (and unlike in 12 Angry Men, usually ends up caving--probably usually for the best, but not always! Tyranny of the majority and all that).

My sense from wandering around on the Internet, too, makes me think that if you empower everyone to criticize, some will do it with gay abandon, and others will bite their tongues. I'm just betting that women in the Oneida community were more muted in their criticisms than men were. Or maybe they spoke up (after all, they're women who chose to join the Oneida community rather than run-of-the-mill women), but EVEN SO. Patriarchy is a thing.

... but I'm not actually as grumpy about the Oneida community as I sound. I like it that people try these things.

Date: 2017-07-17 05:35 am (UTC)
sovay: (Rotwang)
From: [personal profile] sovay
Even assuming it works reasonably well (and the community stayed together for 32 years, so it must have more or less functioned), it sounds so tedious!

I think life in this community must have required a very high tolerance for processing.

Date: 2017-07-16 10:41 pm (UTC)
evelyn_b: (Default)
From: [personal profile] evelyn_b
I'm really enjoying your road trip accounts! I hope the trip continues to be fun and relaxing.

Date: 2017-07-17 05:34 am (UTC)
sovay: (Rotwang)
From: [personal profile] sovay
(Charles Guiteau, who later assassinated President Garfield, lived in the Oneida Community for five years and could not get laid.)

I love this parenthesis.

[personal profile] spatch had heard of the Oneida Community, but I hadn't. It sounds like a fascinating experiment and I agree that it must have lasted as long as it did (unless it had a revolving door community, which it doesn't sound like) in part because Noyes wasn't the malevolent kind of charismatic, although I admit I look at him a little funny for not doing Mutual Criticism with the rest.

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